Tuesday, March 24, 2020


Why should my conscious mind be clogged with memories and tidbits about Citroën right now? It’s not exactly one of world’s best-known car companies these days, it’s probably best described as Peugeot’s poorer cousin, and retains nothing of the influence represented by its founder André-Gustave Citroën, and its reputation as the world’s fourth largest carmaker, in 1932.

However, going against trend, Citroën has just launched a new passenger car! The DS9.
Top: 2012 Concept 9, supposed to be inspiration for DS9,
but hardly any resemblence. Just another concept car fantasy.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Sure, if you’re a car enthusiast like me, you know the name Citroën, and you might have an inkling of the great triumphs of engineering it produced courtesy of the inspiration of its founder.

The man was a genius.

André was best remembered and respected for the design of helical gears, but it was his curiosity for solving difficult problems, which inspired hls engineers to develop Citroën’s now famous spirit of independence, innovation and automotive excellence, which by far outweighs the many achievements of the young man who, at 41, launched his car company in 1919.

André graduated from the École Polytechnique in 1900, and that year he travelled back to Poland, to visit his late mother’s family. They introduced to him to a carpenter who was making a set of gears with a fishbone structure. André quickly saw the potential and bought the patent.

It was the development of the famed Traction Avant (right) which not only created its bona fides as a cutting-edge carmaker, but also contributed to the company’s financial collapse in 1934, Citroën being taken over by its largest creditor, Michelin. The company fought its way back to solvency, only to once again suffer bankruptcy in 1974. This time the French government forced the takeover of Citroën by its archrival Automobiles Peugeot, and as part of the restructuring of Citroën, Peugeot sold off the Maserati company, which Citroën had acquired in 1968.

It was ownership of the famous Italian sports car company which ignited my brain to look back at one of Citroën’s most enigmatic, famous, and infamous models – the Citroën SM.

More on the SM in a moment, but let’s ask a few people what they know about Citroën.

They will undoubtedly focus on the 1948 2CV and the 1955 DS19, which was also referred to as the ‘Goddess’.

It was probably these two cars, plus some exciting technological developments which earned Citroën a reputation as a carmaker known for ‘interesting’, unique and ‘expensive to maintain’ features.

The DS19 and the SM were ‘book-cased’ by the Traction Avant and another fabulous design, the Citroën CX.

As is always the case with most of my recollections, they are always attached to friendships with memorable people and great experiences. So it was with the CX 2200.

The late (great) Jim Reddiex
In 1974 I was in Brisbane on assignment for my magazine MODERN MOTOR and was introduced to the Queensland Citroën distributor, Jim Reddiex. Jim was already famous as an engineer and rally driver, and an enthusiast for the French brand.

He suggested we go for a drive in his CX 2200 demonstrator. We took off for what in those days were the undeveloped eastern environs of Brisbane, just south of the Brisbane River, with the only road leading to a dead end, marked by a huge quarry. The main road, although bitumen, was narrow and the edges had suffered the ravages of the truck traffic into and out of the quarry.

We launched onto a stretch that was dead straight for about six kilometres, but the edges could only described as a collection of  broken bitumen, culverts, holes, and exposed concrete drainage pipes.

As Jim edged the speed up to about 110 km/h he said: “Watch this,” promptly pushing the car to the left of the bitumen, so that the left side of the car was forced to traverse the broken roadside with its many depressions.

The ‘test’ left me absolutely amazed at the stability of the car, which was never influenced by the condition of the roadside. 

The CX sped smoothly along as if on a magic carpet, and was not only stable, but the frantic workings of the hydro-pneumatic suspension were almost unoticeable.

I had previously driven a DS19 in Sydney, and whilst I was impressed with the quality of the ride, and the handling, I had never experienced such an emphatic display of the CX’s abilities.

The CX also featured the famous 'resting' suspension as the DS19. When parked, the suspension slowly dropped the car lower to the road, as the suspension was depressurized, which allowed easier ingress and egress for the occupants.

A couple of years later, my good friend Steve Cropley (now Editor-in-Chief at Autocar) and I partnered in a CX2200 from London to Paris, to return the car to the press office at Citroën headquarters on the Quai André Citroën.

I dropped Steve off at Charles de Gaulle airport, and returned the car to a very attractive young PR lady.

I mentioned to her that the trafficator indicators did not self-cancel when you returned the steering wheel to TDC, to which she replied haughtily:

“Why should they? It’s a Citroën!” So there!

It was mid-1975 when I met my first Citroën SM.

With Citroën’s ownership of Maserati, the SM, designed in-house by Robert Opron (right), was intended to be a GT model above the DS19, and was engineered with the Maserati V6, to create a reputation as a high performance touring car.

Consistent with Citroën's front wheel drive philosophy, the SM had the V6 engined shoehorned in to achieve this practice.

Sadly, post-war French governments had inflicted a tax (puissance fiscale) on engines bigger than 2.0L, so although the Maserati V6 could be stretched to 3.5 litres, the SM launched with a capacity of 2.7L – leading to, not quite a high performance car. However, it was stylish, in a typically idiosyncratic French fashion.
But, there was a lot to worry about, if you owned one. Mainly getting it serviced. At the time I was good friends with Peter Warneford, who with his father, Wally, owned the Automotive Carburettor Company in Sydney's Woolloomooloo. He and his dad were wizards at tuning and servicing SU and Weber carburettors, and I used to hang around their workshop to see what knowledge I could acquire for free.

One day I dropped in to see Peter, and he took me to the workshop to reveal and explain what a design disaster the Citroen SM was.

The car was in a state of considerable dis-assembly.

The installation of the engine meant that the V6 engine was ‘canted over’ to the right, to lower the line of the hood (bonnet).

Peter, his father Wally, and a couple of mechanics stood around the front of the car, literally scratching their heads.

The Green cylinders are the pressure containers for the pressurised hydro-pneumatic suspension system
To adjust the tappets on the right side of the V6, you had to jack the car up, remove the right hand front wheel, then remove a panel in the inner guard measuring about 50x45cm, so that you could access the tappets to adjust them.

Then, he revealed that the side draught Weber carburettors needed constant adjustment; and the drive belts also needed to be constantly adjusted, and replaced every 35,000 miles (56,000km).

In addition Citroën had not issued dealers with a precise servicing manual, so many dealers had to work it out for themselves. This meant that the small number of SM owners in Sydney eschewed taking their SMs to Citroën dealers, they just drove them straight to Wally and Peter’s workshop.

In late 1975, Peugeot closed the famous Citroën factory on the Quai André Citroën.

This meant the remaining incomplete SMs had to be finished somewhere else, and the job fell to racer Guy Ligier, who made 141 cars at his factory near Vichy.

Meanwhile Maserati had fallen into bankruptcy and had been taken over by de Tomaso and the Orsini family. Work on the Citroën-Maserati SM engine continued and Maserati used it in the Merak between 1974 and 1982. One of the Maserati brothers, Alfieri, used it in the Quattroporte II. That car used the SM platform with a sedan body designed by Bertone.

Although the SM suffered an ignominious place in French automotive history, the SM Club in France remains very active, and has 600 members. There are many special-bodied SMs still in existence, which pop up all the time at various European Concourses. It was a totally-mad idea, but then France has always been the home of eccentric and ‘interesting’ design and engineering, which is totally proper.

Citroën has also been the supplier to the French Government of sedan cars for the President and most politicians.

French President Charles de Gaulle and his custom-built DS19.

It is probably this continuous history which has led to Citroën’s latest large passenger car – the DS 9.

At a time when SUVs have overtaken passenger cars in popularity, you’d have to ask what’s the reason for the DS 9? I think pretty soon, you’ll see fleets of these attractive black sedans conveying French politicians around Paris – that is, after we’ve gotten on top of COVID19, and they’re allowed out.

DS9 designer Pierre Leclercq
The DS 9 (codenamed X83) shares its EMP2 platform with the Peugeot 508, but is slightly extended to create more room in the rear. The design began under head of Design Pierre Ploue, but the final design was completed by Pierre Leclercq.

However, despite its good looks, the DS9 continues to follow Citroën tradition by including some tantalising new technologies. Most interesting of which is the ‘Active Scan Suspension’. This system uses a front-facing camera to scan the road ahead for imperfections while level sensors, accelerometers and drivetrain sensors take note of all other movements and adjust the damping of each individual wheel accordingly. A new take on unconventional suspension systems. 

For a tiny company, during its glory years between 1919 and 1975, Citroën contributed a couple of amazing technologies including its famous Hydro-Pneumatic (self-levelling) Suspension, plus in 1955 the DS was the first production car to use disc brakes.

The DS also featured a single high-pressure hydraulic system which was used to operate the power steering, the suspension and brakes; the brakes were power-assisted to multiply the force applied by the driver.

On the Citromatic (semi-automatic transmission) version, the hydraulic system also operated the clutch, through a system of pistons in the gearbox to shift the gears. From 1968, the DS also introduced directional headlights, that moved with the steering, improving visibility at night.

I think one of Citroën’s quirkiest features was that there was no brake pedal on the DS 19 – it was merely a ‘button’ which you had to train yourself to apply the appropriate light or heavy pressure to stop the car!

Now however, having virtually been swallowed up by Peugeot, Citroen’s historic link to innovation and eccentric design and engineering seems to have been supplanted by more conventional approaches to design and engineering challenges.

The new DS9’s suspension may not be quite as revolutionary as hydro-pneumatic, but it promises to be an excellent method of coping with poor surfaces.

It’s really sad, as I have been attracted to Citroëns over the years because of its eccentric and indifferent approach to solving challenges. Despite its relatively small size, and somewhat lowly position in the automotive industry firmament, I think Citroën was one of the great car companies to exist in this fascinating industry.
It's widely-accepted that the design of helical gears was the inspiration for Citroën's double-chevron logo

My good friend Peter Robinson (editor of Australia’s WHEELS magazine for 16 years and one of the great automotive journalists) says that in his opinion Citroën may only be rivalled by Lancia for innovative thinking. I agree wholeheartedly, although in its day I believe Cadillac closely-rivalled Rolls-Royce in imaginative thinking and product development.

John Crawford

1 comment:

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